Synopsis – A woman’s life is turned upside down when her criminal parents invite an outsider to join them on a major heist they’re planning.
My Take – While every year sees a boundless amount of film releases revolving around con men and grifters, this comedy drama carried its own sense of critical attention as it marks the return of filmmaker Miranda July, nine years after her last feature, The Future. Gaining critical appraise for her odd tone and style, July‘s films are said to both recognize and acknowledge the emotions beneath their subjects, making even the simplest character seem interesting. And now with a relatively star-studded cast attached to her third directorial feature, it made sense that the film has appeared on every film critic’s radar ever since the first trailer dropped.
Though I never seen any of July‘s previous works, including her supposedly widely celebrated 2005 debut, Me and You and Everyone We Know, my interest garnered only after finding that the film has been sharing space with the likes of Can You Ever Forgive Me? (2018) and Parasite (2019), in lists consisting of big-screen swindles.
To my surprise, the film turned out to be nothing like I imagined. Firstly, it is not a heist comedy as marketed, but instead a straight up drama, in every sense of the word, revolving around a strange and refreshingly unique family dynamic, with the heist and comedy elements occupying the tiniest portions of the film. However, with inspiring music and a soothing cinematographic hue of calm colors, the film has a certain charm that manages to hook you on to enjoying how the utterly dysfunctional family of three interact with each other.
Yes, it may not be exciting to watch or be laugh out loud funny, but the acting is good, the story is simplistic and the end result is one worth talking about. Making this is a good film that shows promise from a director who succeeds in creating interesting characters and situations.
Set in Los Angeles, the story follows Old Dolio (Evan Rachel Wood), who along with her parents, Robert (Richard Jenkins) and Theresa (Debra Winger), form an emotionally dysfunctional trio of con artists, who mainly steal from the post office. And when the trio profit from a con, they split the financial proceedings equally, though there is a constant feeling the parents are also conning the child out of more than just basic parental decency.
But in general they are quite ineffective at earning money from their scams as they live together in a seedy office complex in a down-at-heel part of the city, which oozes pink foam through the wall, and yet owe $1,500 back rent and face imminent eviction. However, their life takes an interesting turn with when they end up meeting Melanie (Gina Rodriguez), who not only becomes involved in their racket, but also comes up with a newer one with a much faster pay. Noticing that her parents are showering more attention on the relative stranger than their own daughter, the gauche, scared Old Dolio sees no option but forcefully come out of her shell.
What begins as an unconventional crime story soon turns into Old Dolio’s story of self-discovery as she comes to realize that her upbringing has left her unprepared for the world outside the petty criminality that has been her life. Here, writer-director Miranda July have crafted a unique film that blends the calamity of this family and idea of what lies ahead with one breaks away from everything they’ve ever known.
Especially a family like this one which isn’t great and sadly it’s Old Dolio who has suffered the greatest. Both Robert and Theresa treat Old Dolio unlike anything resembling a loving relationship within a family dynamic. She’s the one that no one will notice or even suspect. Let Old Dolio take all the risk while the parents wait around the corner so they can split the score evenly three ways. It’s quite sad to think about, furthermore, Robert and Theresa fail to notice that Old Dolio is seeking more than the thin slice of life they have served to her.
However it is only after Melanie enters her life things begin to change for the better. Melanie is intrigued by this young woman who clearly missed out on childhood and self-discovery. The moments they share together are what make this film really shines, while making a point about the importance of relationships.
While the film is not the comedy as advertised, it sure relies on understated physical humor as a backdrop to the slightly absurd conversations and situations with which the characters grapple.
Especially the scene where the three marching in line, routinely ducking out of view of the landlord who lives next door and clearing the soap which leaks through the ceiling twice, sometimes three times a day. It’s a comedy that asks us why we find it funny, drawing attention to the character’s quirks and interactions that are, at their core, inexplicably extraordinary. As the feature develops into a more heart-wrenching exploration of familial love, its humor gives way to slightly incredulous and yet totally beautiful moments of poignancy.
However, I did struggle to get through the third act. I hated time spent with Theresa and Robert. I know that is probably what director July intended, as the heart and soul of the film is the relationship between Old Dolio and Melanie and would have been a far more effective way to advance the story. Even when Robert and Theresa attempt to do something normal to celebrate Old Dolio’s birthday, it comes across as forced and possibly just another scam. I know everything I want to know about Theresa and Robert in the first act. They are never interesting because there is nothing redemptive about them.
Performance wise, Richard Jenkins, Debra Winger and Gina Rodriguez bring something unique to each of their characters. Jenkins and Winger exude desperation as the rumpled, bumbling small timers, while Rodriguez is all charm and warmth as their protégée, but ultimately the film belongs to Evan Rachel Wood.
With waist-length, straw hair obscuring her face, she drops her voice an octave or two and adopts the physicality of someone who learned how to walk from reading books. It is a wonderfully nuanced, comedic character but there’s more to her than awkward behavior and a silly name. Wood keeps Old Dolio’s emotions under wraps for much of the film, but there’s an apparent inner life that becomes more apparent as she begins to wake up and make a connection with someone for the first time in her life. On the whole, ‘Kajillionaire’ is an utterly unpredictable and heart-wrenching comedy drama with an exceptional turn from Evan Rachel Wood.
Directed – Miranda July
Rated – R
Run Time – 104 minutes